Protect it before you’ve wrecked it

Prevent noise-induced hearing loss now and your future self will thank you later.

It’s true that hearing loss is a normal part of the ageing process. But in many ways, we’re each in charge of our own aural destinies. While there are no guarantees your hearing won’t naturally degenerate over time, there are plenty of things we can all do (or, in some cases, not do) to minimise damage to our precious ears throughout our lifetimes.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) can happen instantly when exposed to extreme sounds, but more likely will result from prolonged exposure to noise beyond 85dB – around the mid-range of human hearing. Loud sounds cause tiny hair-like cells in our inner-ears to collapse, leading to symptoms like ringing in the ear (tinnitus), muffled hearing and even complete deafness. And the worst part is, once our hearing is damaged or lost it doesn’t grow back.

On a personal level, significant hearing damage can have serious career implications and can also impact health and wellbeing – contributing to things like anxiety, depression and hypertension. In the workplace, it can impact employee performance, absenteeism and staff turnover, as well as contributing to injuries and accidents.

Know the limits, and cut through the noise at work.
Noisy workplaces are the prime culprits for preventable hearing loss. According to Safe Work Australia, around 30% of the workforce is exposed to excessive industrial noise. The loudest industries include, unsurprisingly, manufacturing, transport, construction and defence. But in some cases, even working in environments like busy restaurants, laundries, kitchens and airports can have damaging implications.

Damage begins to occur long before we experience any pain or discomfort. The national Work Health and Safety noise standard is defined as: as LAeq,8h of 85 dB(A) or an LC,peak of 140 dB(C). Don’t have a PhD in physics? That’s ok. Essentially it means that no worker should be exposed to 8 hours of continuous noise over 85dB and/or any sounds above 140dB.

Speak up, but don’t raise your voice.
It’s up to businesses to protect workers from noise hazards. And for any staff required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) like earmuffs or plugs, the employer must provide regular audiometric testing. But how do you even know if you’re working in a hazardous environment? Try the one-metre rule: if you have to raise your voice to have a conversation one metre from a colleague, you’re entitled to ask management to conduct a detailed noise assessment. From there, the business must take immediate action to fix any issues and/or supply necessary PPE where required.

Some examples of everyday workplace sound levels are: truck engine (80dB), lawnmower (90dB), hand-held power tools (95dB), and chainsaw (110dB). Because noise-levels double every 3dB, operating a (95dB) belt-sander is more than twice as damaging as pushing a (90dB) lawnmower. And even a basic task like manually hammering a nail comes in at a whopping 130dB – around the human pain threshold. Surprised? It’s worth taking some time to evaluate noise in your work environment now, so you can identify risks to be eliminated.

Downtime is just as dangerous.
Just because you’ve not worked in, say, a loud manufacturing environment doesn’t mean you’re immune to NIHL. There are plenty of recreational activities that carry significant risk factors too. And given the proportion of the population engaging in downright risky behaviours, like listening to music with earbuds or driving for long periods with the window down, recreational activities may well have more significant overall impacts than industry.

Permanent hearing loss from acoustic trauma happens when we’re exposed to sounds above 132dB. So even firing a single shot from a firearm without hearing protection can cause immediate damage. Riding a jet ski or motorbike also exposes us to sound levels well above 100dB. Even some children’s toys can pose a risk when used incorrectly – and when do kids ever use anything ‘correctly’?

But all the kids (and adults) are doing it.
You’ll notice it on the street, in the park, during your commute – headphones are more prevalent now than ever before. And, guess what? Maximum output levels of portable MP3 players often far exceed safe listening volume. Because technology allows us to carry many days’ worth of music in our pockets, we’re potentially damaging our hearing as we attempt to block out background noise. Ironic, don’t you think?

A rule of thumb to be applied here is to try to limit listening to 60 minutes at 60% volume per day. Simple for some of us, maybe. But you’ll have to forcibly remove your teenager’s earbuds before convincing them to take a break.

Beware rock’n’roll’s hidden hazards.
Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand, Pete Townsend – there are no shortage of music stars with damaged hearing due to years of turning the volume to 11. Notably, AC/DC singer Brian Johnson recently hung up the microphone due to rock’n’roll-induced hearing loss. But did you ever consider your ears while watching your favourite band or musician perform?

While it’s unlikely attending a single concert will cause permanent hearing damage, it’s worth considering that sound levels at rock shows often exceed 100dB in audience noise alone, so it pays to pack your earplugs. And spare a thought for the poor artists onstage, who have to set their wedge monitors at levels high enough to be heard over the crowd. Ouch!

Plug it, muff it or filter it.
Try these three simple PPE options to limit preventable hearing damage:

- Earplugs
The most widely used and cheapest ear protection, earplugs come in disposable foam or more rigid rubber construction. With mass-produced one-size-fits-all plugs, in simple terms you get what you pay for (ranging from $1 throwaways to around $100 for quality reusables). Pay attention to the sound rating (or ‘class’) of the plug – generally the number of decibels reduced by the product. And be sure to shop around to find a snug plug that’s fit-for-purpose and won’t fall out.

- Earmuffs
Generally one complete ear covering for each side, joined by an adjustable overhead band (though some varieties can clip onto hard-hats), earmuffs offer effective hearing protection, with one major drawback: they’re bulky. While not the most suitable choice for hot or humid environments, similar to plugs, earmuffs come in a wide range of noise classes, and are also a great choice for kids. Basic setups cost as little as $10, right up to many hundreds of dollars for wireless, hands-free conversation functionality and customisable features.

- Custom Ear Moulds
Whether you’re into hunting, performing onstage, or working in a loud environment where accurate communication is essential, in-ear custom moulds can be adapted to suit. Available at all National Hearing Care clinics, ear moulds are made from ultra-comfortable moulded silicone, and include features like attenuating acoustic filters that reduce certain sounds dependent on the application. While a chainsaw operator may be happy with an overall muffling of all noise, a musician or hunter requires a more nuanced blocking or reduction of certain frequencies, or an overall sound reduction that retains balance. This is where custom ear moulds are worth the extra expense.

Now’s the perfect time to cover your ears.
The good news is, whether at work or play, almost all noise-induced hearing loss can be mitigated through prevention and personal protection. And, even better, in most cases we just need to slightly modify our behaviours to prevent unnecessary suffering further down the track. The most important thing to remember is that most damage occurs within the first ten years of exposure. While it may not be life-threatening, it is most certainly life-affecting, so it’s critical to get the message across to young people to put the bravado aside and take hearing loss seriously, sooner rather than later.

To find out more about your hearing health, book a free hearing test.

NHC blog is our place to explore ideas and themes of interest. For professional audiology advice, please contact your local clinic for a consultation.